My Turn: Social media and our kids’ health


Published: 10/13/2021 6:05:53 AM

Last week a Facebook whistleblower testified before a Senate subcommittee, revealing just how much Facebook knows and has known about how their formulas for what they put in front of you and encourage you to click on contributes to the spreading of misinformation, hate-speech, violence-inciting content, and graphically violent content, as well as contributes directly to youth body image issues, eating disorders, anxiety, and depression.

This seems like an important moment to take stock of the alarming changes that we’ve seen in youth mental health locally in recent years.

The Communities That Care Coalition has been working with all of our local public middle and high schools (including Greenfield, Gill-Montague, Mohawk, Pioneer, Frontier, Athol, Orange, Tech, and Four Rivers) to conduct a youth health survey of 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-grade students each year since 2003. This allows us to identify problems (as well as improvements) when they arise.

In 2012, the data began to show a truly substantial increase in symptoms of depression. A closer look showed that this was particularly true among girls and students who identify as gender nonconforming or nonbinary.

Students were more likely to report that sometimes they think that life in not worth it, that at times they think they are no good at all, that all in all they are inclined to think they are a failure, and that they felt depressed or sad most days in the past year. Anxiety levels, too, were at extremely high rates, and overall about one third of our local students were reporting symptoms of anxiety and one third were reporting symptoms of depression, with significant overlap between those two groups, amounting to about ½ of our students experiencing mental health problems. These are devastating numbers.

Incidentally, 2012 was also the year when for the first time most U.S. adults had smartphones. That has only increased, with now more than half of US children owning a smartphone by age 11. The increase in depression and anxiety among local youth also only continued to worsen over the next eight years, and then the isolation, disruption, and fear brought by the pandemic piled insult to injury, eroding mental health far further.

In our 2021 Teen Health Survey, 42% of students reported symptoms of depression and 43% reported symptoms of anxiety, with the number far higher among girls, LBGTQ identified students, students of color, and low-income students. The pandemic pushed us all even further into online social interactions, and many social media algorithms continue to knowingly push our kids content that they know erodes self-esteem and happiness.

To be sure, social media is by no means the only thing eroding youth mental health in recent years, even pre-pandemic. The top two things that our local young people say worry and upset them are climate change and social justice issues. This begs the question of what can we do, as a society, to focus ourselves on what kind of a world we want to leave our young people. What kinds of systemic changes can we make to help ease the justifiable and urgent concerns of our youth?

Tools like social media have the power to be drivers of positive change. But in order to do that, we need to require that our social media companies stop putting profit above health and safety. We need to hold them accountable when they choose to sell out our children’s health for their own bottom line. Our young people’s health depends on it.

Kat Allen, MPH, is the Communities That Care Coalition coordinator at the Franklin Regional Council of Governments.

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